In the age of mass media, horror enthusiasts needn’t go to a bookstore or cinema to get their fix. And for once, it’s not the Internet that is to blame.
A Dying Fire
Every day and every night, the syndicate news channels spew one horror story after another. There is enough drama to satisfy our every craving for fear and terror. And should the world fail to be on fire, the news writers add drama to whatever is happening with a few choice words: calling a collision a “car accident” doesn’t turn any heads, but “disaster” still gets a response.
It’s no secret that we are desensitising at an alarming rate. Hundreds get killed in a natural cataclysm, yet we shrug and check our Facebook status. News outlets desperately try to fan the flames of this dying fire by using ever more superlatives, but fact remains that the number of people who give f*** all about anything is dwindling faster than ever before.
You can only fan a flame so many times before it starves.
Unfortunately, the horror side of the entertainment industry feeds off that same dying fire. The audience isn’t scared – or even mildly uneasy – unless they care. Unless they empathise with at least one of the characters and their situation. The artists’ job is to make them care. Feed the fire, as it were.
But that has become an uphill battle in all media.
The movie industry responded to the growing desensitisation of the audience by adding more gore, more sensation and more terror. Rather than investing in audience empathy, movies were formatted to maximise exposure to whatever scares or repulses us not just on a subconscious level but on a biological level (remember Human Caterpillar, anyone?).
Shock horror is a matter of timing, but since even that is no longer fail-safe, films call on low-frequency sounds these days. Those vibrations go straight to the basic parts of your brain, making you feel sick and upset despite yourself. The sense of horror no longer comes from the story or the imagery, but from a biological hot wire added to the soundtrack. That isn’t good horror; that’s cheating. But very effective all the same.
While tricks like these work, in the long run the audience will become less sensitive with each consecutive exposure. Like drug addicts need more and more to get the same buzz.
Upping the stakes indefinitely borders on the ridiculous. Small wonder that cynical horror comedies have sprouted like mushrooms in recent years…
Mind you, recent horror movies can be marvellous. You needn’t look further than the remake of IT. At the same time, this remake is also much more explicit and in-your-face than the original film ever was. Shock over suspense, because people can’t be anything less than frightened senseless after watching it. Right?
Could be, but creating by that rule, what else is the industry sacrificing in the long run?
Books face challenges of an entirely different order than visual stories.
In reading, sensory input is determined by the reader. The writer only has word choice, description and word value at his/her disposal to conjure the illusion of sensory perception. Some writers know tricks to tap into the reader’s psyche and guide it where the story needs to go – similar to the art of misdirection in stage magic -, but for the most part they must rely on black letters on white paper to scare their readers.
Good writers get that job done and have us shivering with fright as if we are living what they describe, but too many horror books adhere religiously to the genre format. While 99% of all stories have roughly the same structure (Hero’s Journey, Three-Act Construct), genre formats dictate exactly what kind of event must happen where in the story.
This is why so many horror stories seem alike. Or thrillers, whodunnits and romance novels, for that matter. Here, too, repeated exposure to the same input desensitises the reader. They may continue to read horror books, but whether they will feel any of the emotions the writers hoped to elicit remains to be seen.
Internet Breaks the Mould
Since the arrival of the Internet, anyone can publish anything, regardless of content or quality. For the horror genre, this provided a new treasure of scary stories known as creepypasta. These usually short, urban myth-like stories get shared on social media sites and seem to be particularly popular with teenagers.
The often anonymous authors of these stories are blissfully unaware of genre limitations as posed by the publishing industry. Subjects and level of horror vary (as does quality), but overall they can be very entertaining and, because their lack of genre format, surprising.
In this, the horror folklore on the Internet has stayed true to the one essential ingredient of horror fiction: the element of surprise.
Challenge to Creators
Daily overexposure to horror and suffering makes us indifferent to the news, but it also has us laughing out loud at fountains of blood, creepy noises and yet another dumb teen getting ripped to shreds by the resident psycho/monster/alien/whatever.
It simply doesn’t surprise us anymore. Yet a major component of fear, and by extension the horror genre, is the unpredictability. The threat to the hero can be anything, as long as it is to some degree unexpected, unknown, unseen or uncontrollable.
For artists working in the genre, this is an extra complication. You know the story you’re telling, so how to capture that feeling in words or film when your own stories no longer scare you? Perhaps this is the reason so many writers and film makers resort to the tried-and-tested genre format. You rely on the format to ensure thrills for your audience when you cannot feel them while you are creating.
However, going through the motions to tell your story is no longer a reliable option. The audience has it figured out and is accustomed to the effect. They can predict each carefully measured step in the format. And if a horror story is predictable, it becomes laughable.
Ridicule is the death strike to a story. It’s a sign that the audience has lost all empathy.
Adding more ready-made scares and over-the-top gore isn’t going to put the horror back into horror stories. Following a standard format won’t make the audience empathise, nor will it imbue a story with the suspense needed to trigger the fear and shivers the audience seeks.
But restoring the unpredictable in horror fiction, however essential, will not be easy. People are exposed to the unimaginable on a daily basis, where this inflated superlative is presented as reality. The entertainment industry can try to trump that, but such attempts are more likely to contribute to the situation than solve it.
Overstatement doesn’t inspire empathy. Not for people suffering in real life, and certainly not for fictional characters. Perhaps if news outlets stuck to the facts and left meting out horror to artists in the genre, both would find a much more empathic audience.